I Get a Kick(Start) Out of You

As a kid, I loved going to the public library.  In fact, I first fell in love with New York City at the Wasilla Public Library, devouring books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the All-of-a-Kind Family series.  The library was near my dad’s office, so I could ride with him to work, then walk to the library and spend my afternoon among the bookshelves.  Bliss!  There was just one problem: I had to cross the street at a four-way stop to get to the library.

The four-way stop was, to my 9-year-old self, a daunting intersection to navigate.  I found the traffic rules intimidating, and usually just stood nervously on the sidewalk until a kindly driver waved me across, at which point I ran for my life and exhaled with relief upon reaching the other side.

All these years later, I still love New York City and the public library.  I’m also happy to report that I no longer find four-way stops to be challenging.  The intersection of art and commerce, on the other hand, is riddled with complicated questions: how can I make a living as a musician?  How are the arts funded in the United States?  How can I support the arts?  How can I garner support for my own creative endeavors?

The answers to these questions have never been definitive, but KickStarter provides some interesting options.  KickStarter is an online platform that offers unique ways to both support and be supported by the creative community.  I’ve backed several projects on KickStarter, and I’m also smack dab in the middle of my own campaign as I prepare to make my debut solo album, The Great City.

What I like about KickStarter is that it’s a two-way street.  You make a pledge to someone’s project, and you get something in return.  The “something” that you get, as per KickStarter rules, has to be generated by the project you’re supporting.  In my case, people who pledge toward my album will receive signed advance copies of The Great City, copies of my Christmas CD (in time for the holidays, of course!), album art, liner note credits, and in-home concerts, among other rewards.

So today, on Cyber Monday, please consider joining my KickStarter campaign and becoming a part of my album.  When you visit my KickStarter page and make your pledge, you’ll be giving and receiving the gift of music; what better way to spread holiday cheer?  I’ll meet you there, on the corner of art and commerce.  Happy holidays!

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North Pole, South Pole

north_pole_MG0233My friend R. is a brilliant guitarist who spends a lot of time on the road. Road trips and trans-Atlantic flights can get long, and musicians tend to be a pretty funny bunch, which is, I suspect, how R.’s “North Pole, South Pole” game came into existence. The game goes something like this:

“Hey, Hil. North Pole, South Pole. Would you rather live in a remote village in Papua New Guinea with all your favorite records OR in New York City, but you’d never be able to hear music again?”

“Okay, North Pole, South Pole. Would you rather write ‘jazz is dead’ 5000 times on a chalkboard OR be forced to transcribe every note of a Shooby Taylor solo?”

And so on.

Now, it’s fun to play “North Pole, South Pole” on an endless road trip or after a couple of beers, but we engage in real-life “North Pole, South Pole” thinking at our own psychological peril. Regarding our life choices as binary, “either/or” propositions can actually leave us with some pretty miserable options:

“I can be an artist and live in abject poverty, OR I can give up my creativity and be financially stable.”

“I can have independence and a strong sense of self, OR I can sublimate my identity and be in a relationship with someone.”

“I can be liked OR I can say what I think.”

“I can have a career OR a family.”

At times, I’ve bought into every single one of the “North Pole, South Pole” scenarios listed above. But, invariably, whenever I start to paint the world in black-and-white, Life comes along and throws a bunch of gray onto the canvas. Free from “North Pole, South Pole” thinking, our choices, our challenges, become about balance. How can we:

weighing_the_balance_587x30…pursue our creative potential while maintaining financial solvency?

…connect wholeheartedly to our partners without losing our connection to our individuated Selves?

…articulate our own needs and ideas with the right blend of assertiveness and compassion?

…navigate the distance between our home life and our life’s work?

Pic2-3aSphereNot surprisingly, the answers to our biggest, most pressing questions can’t be found in a game of “North Pole, South Pole.” Truth, like people, tends to live somewhere in the middle.

Everybody’s a critic.

Criticism. If you are willing to put yourself “out there,” as a performing artist, then some criticism is inevitable. I personally have received some lovely reviews, and a couple that, um, weren’t so lovely.100_6107

The lovely reviews were fun to receive, but not particularly memorable. The less than lovely–okay, the shitty–reviews are much more vivid in my memory.

My first skin-thickening review came during a five-night run of a cabaret performance. Reading that I effectively possessed all the emotional depth of a wading pool wasn’t fun, but the reviewer was so snarky and biting that I ultimately concluded he must have eaten a bad oyster or something, and taken it out on me.

Much more recently, though, someone I respect quite a lot wrote a review that was, for the most part, pretty tepid, but the reviewer did remark on my voice, which he said was “pretty” but didn’t possess much “body.” I’m not going to lie: that stung. And I humbly submit the following:

My voice is, indisputably, light and clear; as much as I’d like to believe otherwise, I know that I will never be able to belt like Aretha. But I started singing 19 years ago, and this I know for sure: my voice is not without “body.” Light? Yes. Weak? No way.

But the real issue I’m trying to sort out, here, is this: how do we deal constructively with criticism that may or may not be constructive at all? If we take our good reviews to heart, crowing inwardly, “They got me! They really understood me!”, do we then have to be just as willing to impart significance to the reviews that hurt (or infuriate) us? How do we keep our skin thick but our hearts open?
Wretched Reviews

I admire the iron will exerted by artists who swear that they never read their own reviews. In the age of Google, though, I don’t know how on earth they manage such a feat. The temptation is too great and the access is just too easy.

For my part, I’m not content to categorically dismiss critics and criticism as irrelevant. There are, for example, many knowledgeable “arts journalists,” as opposed to “critics,” who further public literacy about the arts as well as promote artists via their writing. So I want to find a way to enjoy positive feedback, learn from the negative feedback, and not take either too seriously.

I intend to lick my wounds and be grateful that someone who writes for a living would be willing to attend a performance and devote multiple paragraphs to a review. And then I’m going to go back to doing what I love the most: singing.

What’s your ritual?

z.tharp.creative.habit.50I’ve read a veritable pantsload of creativity self-help tomes. One of the best that I’ve come across is Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life.

Twyla Tharp doesn’t mince words; she tells it like it is. Over the course of a storied career spanning around 4 decades, Tharp has enjoyed mainstream success the likes of which most of us can only dream about, yet she’s also borne the brunt of some scathing reviews. She’s a creative warrior who knows whereof she speaks on matters of creativity.artists-way

While looking for the magical secret that will unlock my creativity and transform me into a prolific, perpetually inspired artist, I’ve read works by Twyla Tharp, Julia Cameron, and Steven Pressfield.

the-war-of-art

Imagine my dismay when I learned that every single one of the brilliant creative souls listed above has the same thing to say: paradoxically, creative output is the product of a disciplined routine/ritual, applied with focus and faith every day toward a specific goal or set of goals. Shit.

Well, there is good news, here:
1. I was raised Catholic. I love ritual.
2. I thrive on order. I love routine.
3. Inspiration isn’t a capricious imp who visits only a select few. Inspiration can be wooed, courted, and–if need be–willed into existence.

I’ve experimented with a lot of different rituals over the years, none of which have really stuck. I used to run religiously. But then the weather turned cold, and my ritual blew away with the Autumn leaves. I love the discipline of my classical vocalises, but I can’t do those first thing in the morning, and if I should catch a cold and lose my voice–no more ritual, for at least a week, anyway. Julia Cameron is a vigorous advocate of morning journal-writing, but very often my journal entries meander and devolve into to-do lists.

So what can I do every single day, first thing, to get the creative juices flowing? What ritual will remain consistent, rain or shine, voice or no voice? Um, I’m going to go with: Writing My Blog, for $500, Alex!

So there it is: I’ve laid down the gauntlet for myself. Regardless of how few of you might be reading Ad Alta Voce on a daily basis, I will be here every morning. Not only do I get the chance to get the creative wheels turning right off the bat, I get to mull over topics like: music, New York, spirituality, food…all of which invite creativity.

So I hope you’ll join me as I integrate this new ritual into my daily life. I’m fairly certain that performing a daily creative ritual will be transformative. And I want to know what your ritual is. How do you navigate the creative process?

To close, here is a lecture given by Elizabeth Gilbert, as part of TED Talks. She speaks at length about “having” a genius, as opposed to “being” a genius. I’ve posted this on my Facebook page in the past, but her message is so powerful I’m including it here, too. Enjoy!